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Barbara Adams, Chair, Executive Board, Global Policy Forum

The UN Charter gives civil society organisations (CSOs) rights of consultation with member states, but the rules and procedures needed to make this a reality have not kept pace with the myriad ways in which the UN system has grown, and the UN Secretariat has often been remiss in failing to take the lead and initiative to close this gap. Nevertheless, the UN ‘system’, however disjointed, has availed itself of the active engagement of CSOs as implementing partners in difficult situations and has benefitted from their energetic awareness-raising and outreach.

Over the last few decades, CSO engagement with the UN has accumulated an impressive catalogue of good practices that give real meaning to their ‘consultative’ status. These range from participation in formal hearings to inclusion in expert meetings and in informal
consultations among UN member states. Yet the UN Secretariat has been slow to provide the institutional leadership that would enable CSOs to be an integral part of a coherent, value-based, people-and-planet-centred system – and reduce all parties’ transaction costs.

CSOs are committed allies as the new Secretary-General Guterres steers the UN towards revitalising itself and re-claiming its valuebased and premier role in multilateralism.

For example, the Secretariat has not been a consistent and energetic advocate of CSO consultative status with the UN General Assembly beyond piecemeal, special-occasion resolutions. And engagement with the Security Council is on a grace-and-favour basis, and heavily skewed in favour of the well-resourced NGOs that can maintain a New York presence – a visa challenge as well as a financial one for many organisations.

While the informality of engagement has been a valuable component of building trust, it cannot be the only means of engagement.

Such institutional leadership is especially important at a time when CSOs and social movements are experiencing restrictions and strong push-back in many national situations.

Many areas of CSO expertise and experience – in service provision, as human rights defenders, in solidarity at community level, a watchdog function, research and analysis, campaigning and, increasingly, data collection – are vital as the UN and its member states seek to implement their commitments, including the recently adopted 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Much progress has been made in terms of regarding CSOs as an important constituency with their own accountability requirements and standards, not a pool from which to select individual talent. Still, the UN system has a tendency to pick and choose CSO engagement as fits its different agendas, which is not consistent with respecting the autonomy and self-organisation of CSOs, nor with respecting and supporting diversity of participation, perspectives and positions committed to the public sphere. However, it is this independence and autonomy that brings quality and durable support for UN values.

The UN is in danger of losing its unique value-based place among otherwise deal-making entities of multilateralism, and projecting the stodgy attributes of a pre-occupied, self-concerned bureaucracy – rather than that of a consistent champion of the public interest.

CSOs will be a consistent and constructively critical ally as the UN renews its determination to tackle the difficult and complex issues of sustainable development, peace and justice – and veers away from ‘low-hanging fruit’ and deal-making limited by powerful and narrow interests.

CSOs are committed allies as the new Secretary-General Guterres steers the UN towards revitalising itself and re-claiming its value-based and premier role in multilateralism.

About the author

Barbara Adams is Chair of the Board of Global Policy Forum. Previously she worked for the United Nations for 20 years, and with international civil society networks.

Photo: Secretary-General Inducts Wangari Maathai as UN Messenger of Peace. Copyright UN Photo/Mark Garten